Most religious discrimination litigation under Title VII deals with employers’ obligation to reasonably accommodate employees’ beliefs and practices. However, Title VII also protects employees from hostile and unwelcomed attempts to influence their religious beliefs, whether originating from the employer or from co-workers. In Winspear v. Community Development, Inc., the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently allowed a claim to go to a jury for trial that involved accusations of unwelcomed workplace proselytizing.
The plaintiff’s brother had committed suicide, and the owner of the company’s wife (who was also employed by the defendant) repeatedly approached the plaintiff advising him that she had the gift of being able to communicate with the dead. She told the plaintiff that his brother was suffering in hell and that he needed to “find God.” The owner’s wife repeatedly made these comments over a period of months and invited the plaintiff to her church. He began avoiding her due to the upsetting nature of her comments and eventually quit. He sued, alleging that the employer did not take adequate steps to stop this proselytizing even after repeated complaints.
The Eighth Circuit reversed summary judgment for the defendant, sending the claim to a jury trial to determine if the plaintiff was exposed to a hostile and offensive working environment. The court found possible merit in this claim even in the absence of a viable constructive discharge action.
Under Title VII, employers have a responsibility to protect employees from aggressive and unwelcomed proselytizing. Although one or two conversations, suggestions or invitations will not reach the level of a hostile work environment, repeated unwelcomed attempts to convert or persuade a co-worker can constitute religious harassment, especially where the employee has complained to management about the conduct. Employers need to walk a fine line between protecting employees from unwelcomed solicitations while preserving the right to reasonable expressions of religious belief in the workplace. However, employers’ natural hesitancy to intervene in these issues should not prevent action when it becomes clear that the behavior is unwelcomed.